Getting Intimate with Invisible Audiences

Invisible audiences drive the success and failures of mediated social life. Before we rush to further network our private and public spaces we should consider this radical cultural shift. Some lessons can be learned from a recent ambiguous website and an old ambiguous book.

work by Liu Bolin

Binary Relationships

The privacy debate has been dominated by the cultural leaders of our time – software engineers. Therefore we should not be surprised that the tones of this debate have been often quite binary. Private or public, 0 or 1, all or nothing… these binary dichotomies make sense for packet switching and network protocols, but they are very different from the way we lead our social lives.

Privacy has become a selfish demand, and publicness—a public good. A public demanding the civil rights of information: “information wants to be free”. But this highly celebrated “free” information does not necessarily stand for “freedom”. Thinking that free information would necessarily lead to free societies is as misguided as the similar sentiment about free markets. Yes, technologically it is easier to set something public, “to set it free”, than to define a more limited context for it. But what does it mean for the way we’ve been communicating and contextualizing social relations since the dawn of civilization?

Information wants to be free from the boundaries of the context—from our limiting way of distilling meaning and relationships. It wants to be free from the various shades of trust based communication. There’s a reason why we came up with different words to describe secrecy, discreteness, confidentiality and intimacy. These are all different shades of social communicative contexts. These shades are too gray to be assigned a mathematical value. And even if engineers could find a way to map intimacy to numbers, they would have to constantly readjust their formulas to account for endless changing social and psychological contexts (space, language, time, biology, mood…)

I would argue this continuous technological failure is generally a good thing. The fuzzy complexity of our social lives protects them from being even more technologically manipulated. At the same time we are seeing an alarming phenomenon—to minimize the failure of these technological systems we are choosing to simplify our social life. We don’t expect confidentiality, we devalue discreteness, we give up on intimacy. The result is a constant shift towards performative communication. This shift definitely holds a lot of merit but it comes with a grave price—the suppression of direct trust-based personal communication.

Four Unique Properties of Mediated Publics

Public spaces have many purposes in social life – they allow people to make sense of the social norms that regulate society, they let people learn to express themselves and learn from the reactions of others, and they let people make certain acts or expressions ‘real’ by having witnesses acknowledge them.

—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Danah Boyd, is an academic who successfully challenges an often too algorithmic debate with insightful writing about social media, youth and race. In a blog post from May 2007 she investigates the private vs. public debate in Social Networking Sites, which she refers to as “mediated publics”. She quotes Hannah Arendt and argues that though these mediated publics serve a similar role to that of public spaces, they do pose some fundamental differences. Boyd identifies four parameters that distinguish mediated publics from unmediated ones:

  1. Persistence. What you say sticks around. This is great for asynchronous communication, but it also means that what you said at 15 is still accessible when you are 30 and have purportedly outgrown those childish days.
  2. Searchability. My mother would’ve loved the ability to scream “Find!” into the ether and determine where I was hanging out with my friends. She couldn’t, and I’m thankful. Today’s teens’ parents have found their hangouts with the flick of a few keystrokes.
  3. Replicability. Digital bits are copyable; this means that you can copy a conversation from one place and paste it into another place. It also means that it’s difficult to determine if the content was doctored.
  4. Invisible audiences. While it is common to face strangers in public life, our eyes provide a good sense of who can overhear our expressions. In mediated publics, not only are lurkers invisible, but persistence, searchability, and replicability introduce audiences that were never present at the time when the expression was created.

—Danah Boyd, Social Network Sites: Public, Private, or What?

These four properties are essential for our understanding of the fundamental shifts in human sociability presented by new mediated publics. They also help understand the challenges that these mediated publics pose to the nuanced sociability that is required for discreteness, confidentiality and intimacy.

In the absence of these nuanced relations we are led to not expect the serendipitous encounters that are part and parcel of unmediated public space. Moreover, there is less room for us to use this spaces to (in Arendt’s words) “make sense of the social norms that regulate society” as these norms are largely regulated through digital interfaces and network protocols.

Consider Chat Roulette

In November 2009, Andrey Ternovskiy (17) launched a new mediated public on the web. This cross between video chat and Russian roulette randomly couples any of its users to a face to face real time video and text chat. The users cannot control who will they be chatting with but can each choose to end the current chat by hitting the ‘Next’ button and roll the dice again.

The site has gained meteoric popularity and has instantly become an international phenomenon. Users celebrated the serendipity of total random encounters with strangers from all around the world. With the camera and microphone pointed at the users there is not much room for manipulation. An adult man cannot pretend to be a teenage girl as the real time camera and microphone feed preserve the integrity of user representation.

Chat Roulette’s limiting minimalist interaction levels the playing field for the users that have grown tired of the easily manipulated digital form. The video chat’s real-time quality does not leave room for editing or fine-tuning, it is raw conversation, it is all there, in the flesh, uncut.

To understand just how novel is the CR (Chat Roulette) experience as a mediated public space, we can try to examine it through Boyd’s four properties:

  1. Persistence. CR facilitates a Peer-to-Peer real time video chat and does not maintain an archive. That means that the videos are used for real time “conversation” evaporating as they are being created. They do not persist online as “content”.
  2. Searchability. The randomness of the ‘Next’ function and the fact video content is still hard to index in real time makes each conversation in CR truly unique, discrete and unsearchable.
  3. Replicability. Replicating text anywhere on the web is as easy as Select+Copy+Paste. But the browser and CR do not provide tools for replicating video content. And even when it is replicated, it is still much harder to manipulate and forge the authenticity of the video content post-production.
  4. Invisible Audiences. While the way users are randomly paired up is initially unknown, the video screen usually reveals the audience and the scene the user is being exposed to. Even if one side chooses to conceal their faces or even their entire screens, their manipulation is transparent and the user can choose to hit the ‘Next’ button and immediately opt out of any manipulation.

In a way it would be hard to call the Chat Roulette experience novel, as most of it is simply reverting to offline communication style. As a mediated public CR is not mediating much. It simply shuffles users looking through their windows into other randomly picked windows. Chat Roulette merges the serendipity of random anonymous networking with the integrity of real time audiovisual representation. But unlike in urban space, in CR location is discretely mediated. You can watch, but cannot touch.

Incidents of a pervert masturbating behind bushes in public parks are not unheard of. In Chat Roulette’s mediated public you just cannot avoid them, and they are not behind the bushes, they are zoomed into the camera lens. The thin layer of mediation is just enough to make Chat Roulette a masturbators’ paradise. In this public space they are protected from society and its policing force. The constant shuffle doesn’t enforce much empathy to random users who might not be interested in real time (predominantly male) genitalia. But just as much as the thin layer of mediation protects the indecent exposers, it also protects their possible victims. Most users already expect the offensive random crutch, and they can dismiss it with a rapid mouse-click on the ‘Next’ button or the F9 key. You can be watched, but you cannot touch.

Warning: Broadcasting inappropriate content to minors is a violation of both US and UN law.
We are actively cooperating with law enforcement agencies.


The 17 year old Ternovskiy was forced to enforce decency and curb some of his self-pleasuring community. CR users can report an abusive user, after three reports, the abusive user is sent to cool off and is denied access to the site for 40 minutes. In the warning Ternovskiy displays to the users, he emphasizes that CR is bound to enforce US and UN laws. Interestingly enough, he does not claim that these indecencies are violating the (unwritten) laws of the Chat Roulette community itself. In the in Chat Roulette context, it would be hard to call the dominance of masturbating men a perversion. By this time sexual exposures seems integral to the culture of the site, and to a certain degree to its appeal.

But imposed sexuality is not the only manipulation CR users are subjected to. All of Boyd’s four properties can still be imposed on CR users, as they are still communicating in digital space. Some users choose to undermine the intimacy of the conversation and secretly use screen capturing software to document it. As soon as real time “conversation” turns to “content” we find ourselves back with the persistence of these videos online; the searchability of the metadata attached to the video powered by the emerging technologies of face and voice recognition; the replicability of the file and the (hard but) possible manipulation of the content; and lastly this exposes the recorded content to an invisible audience that is not subjected to the CR’s equalizing interface. That is possibly the ultimate abuse.

Many intimate or awkward CR moments were hijacked out of context, often posted on YouTube. In multiple cases Google removed Chat Roulette screen-captured videos from its YouTube site claiming it violates their community guidelines requiring the consensual participation of those featured in the video. At the same time, these community guidelines sporadically enforced on YouTube, present a double standard in comparison to Google’s overreaching non-consensual data surveillance policy.

The confidential conversations within Chat Roulette, their success and their failures are all rooted in our evolutionary social ability. This real time in-person communication is based on millions of years of face to face unmediated human communication. As long as they are not taken out of the Chat Roulette interface, these real time conversation reinforce the way we are wired to communicate.

And Now Reconsider the Street

Arendt defined that a key role of our public spaces is – “to make sense of the social norms that regulate society … make certain acts or expressions ‘real’ by having witnesses acknowledge them. The same integrity we have grown to expect from real time encounters in public space is maintained within Chat Roulette. This integrity is undermined by recording and indexing technologies, not only in Chat Roulette but in the urban public space.

The introduction of digital networks into urban space is exciting for many reasons. Information technologies can help us make better sense of our urban lives by augmenting it with content aware geolocated data. Our phone can query our location and tell us what bus to take and where to get off. Sensors can analyze the humidity and temperature in the air and adjust the watering of each individual tree. Geolocated updates on services like Twitter and FourSquare can tell you where people are, what are they doing and what they are saying. Right here, right now.

Urban planners have never had more data to refer to when they consider: “How is the street being used?” The city is a platform, it always has been. But now it can be extended, augmented, manipulated, hacked… Persistence, searchability, replicability, invisible audiences, the properties that distinguished mediated publics from the street are being introduced into it. More and more the street is becoming a mediated space. Our real time encounters persist through documentation either by us or by others (even if you are not “on Facebook”, pictures of you drunk are). Our whereabouts can be reported and then searched by us or by other witnesses. And once voice and image recognition mature we will be even more searchable than ever. The replicability of our bodies is a different issue, but the replicability of our bodies metadata and the malleability of this documentation is a serious issue already. Finally, the introduction of invisible audiences into our public life is a radical change. It is too early to even imagine the implications of these changes, but we should start to consider them before the information we set free enslaves us.

Invisible Audience in the Garden of Eden

By looking at the cultural and social history of privacy … one finds that “privacy” is simply not relevant in most pre-technical, non-democratic societies.

This is the case because the modern view of “privacy” requires a well-defined separation between public and private realms. Pre-literate societies do not provide such a distinction: such societies are essentially communal and largely unstructured–everybody knows everybody else, and everything is everybody’s business. As a result, there is no clear social boundary between the “private” and “public”.

—Ian Graham, Putting Privacy in Context (June 1999)

Grahm’s arguments are strong and provoking. “Privacy”, especially as the binary opposite of “publicness”, is a fairly new concept rooted in the rise of the merchant class, urban space and mechanical reproduction. But what about the invisible audience? To trace the roots this concept we go even further back in time.

And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”

Genesis 3:8-9

God pretended to not know where Adam and Eve were and what were they up to. But after eating from the fruit of knowledge the first thing they realized was that they are constantly exposed to an invisible audience and the first thing they sought to protect was their rights to privacy. It was their first realization of their humanity. This meant the end of the good times in God’s luxurious yet slightly creepy back yard.

Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

Genesis 4:9

In this case, God’s all seeing eye is used to enforce the justice on the first murder case. God already knows what happened and where is Abel by his omnipresent ability as the ever invisible audience. He still gives Cain the chance to admit, but Cain in his answer claims to his limited humanity of not being an all knowing entity. Cain knows he’s busted, his response is a protest against the “unfair exposure” of his imperfect crime.

From God to the state, institutional invisible audiences have been established to obstruct the Cains of this worlds. Those who would secretly conspire against society’s well being should be stopped and brought to justice. Security has framed the privacy debate before and after 9-11, but the terrorist attacks have completely hijacked the topic. Even the critique of corporate data surveillance have been framed in this context: “What if Google sells its data to the CIA?” “What about the privacy of Chinese activists?” While these are indeed justified concerns, they push the debate to the extreme margins and the dramatic tensions between radical political groups and overprotective governments. In this light many would dismiss the right to privacy as subversive, claiming they have “nothing to hide”. It is time to ask, is privacy just for terrorists?

Nothing to hide?

To clarify this point, lets go back and read further in the book of Genesis:

and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside.

Genesis 9:21-22

Noah got pretty hammered and passed out naked in his tent. It is understandable, he deserved some celebration after ripping the fruits of the first post-flood vineyard. His son Ham was pretty mean about it, when he saw his father passed out in the tent in his indecency he shared it with his two brothers to ridicule Noah’s embarrassing helplessness. The contemporary Ham would’ve probably pulled his mobile phone and uploaded a picture to Facebook, exposing Noah to a much wider invisible audience than he could ever sober out of. We can imagine that publishing such embarrassing pictures would have rendered Noah unemployable, no matter how many species he saved from the flood.

When Noah finally did sober up he was so angry he asked God to punish Ham. God complies, siding with Noah’s expectation to not be exposed to an invisible audience, even if the audience was his own children and the invisibility was due to his own drinking habits. Noah was far from being a terrorist, yet he expected a basic sense of privacy. He expected the basic trust that would allow him to enjoy a drink with his own family in his own tent without being taken advantage of behind his back. If one cannot expect that minimal trust, why bother plant a vineyard? Why bother build an ark?

In his seminal Discipline & Punish, Michel Foucault discussed the disciplining power of invisible audiences in society. He brings up the example of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, an architectural structure for a prison that enforces the inmates discipline by subjecting them to constant exposure. Inside the opaque tower in the center of the circular prison the guard might be watching you, or maybe the guard is not watching. Maybe there’s no guard at all, but would you want to take the risk?

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary;

—Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish

The coercive disciplinary power of invisible audiences online is becoming more alarming, and we cherish even a short suspension of it like Chat roulette offers. Yet we usually choose to log on, and we can choose to log off. From the comfort of our private spaces we feel relatively in control, we can choose to suspend our exposure, turn the computer off and confide in our sheltered space.

The networking of urban space is limiting the suspension of our exposure. When walking becomes publishing, when you might or might not be watched, when you leave a residue of data behind you, the street as a platform changes. New qualities emerge while older ones are suppressed.

This is one of the greatest challenge facing urban planners, policy makers, designers, sociologists, and technologists. The networking of public space should be made to extend our civil liberties, not limit them; to augment our collective knowledge, not to dumb down our social life; to develop and maintain our own grassroots “community guidelines”; to make sure that after this flood of information, we can still enjoy a drink.